The minuscule Leftist parties that we have in Pakistan today seem to have limited themselves to intellectual discourse only
Today when we take a cursory glance at the political firmament of Pakistan, we only see political forces of the right, extreme right and militant right holding sway in Pakistan. There seems to be no alternative to a genuine political party of the Left, of any significance, available to our voters.
The People’s Party no doubt was formed as a Leftist socialist party; but it soon broke away from its ideological moorings. Small Leftist parties do have their presence in three of our smaller provinces; but they do not have much traction at the national level. To understand, why viable Leftist parties could not form and grow in Pakistan, it would be instructive to have a brief historical perspective.
Left always had a marginal presence in Pakistan to begin with. At the time of Partition, many Muslim members of the Indian Communist Party decided to reluctantly support the movement for Pakistan. These Leftist elements soon broke away from the mainstream and formed the nucleus of the Pakistani Left. The Left could never get a substantial following in Pakistan, but it did succeed in organising industrial and railway workers unions as well as peasants’ organisations, to protect them from exploitation of the industrialists and the landlords.
Progressive Writers Association was also formed, which was a very effective organisation of Left wing intellectuals. Eminent Leftist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Marxist intellectual Sajjad Zaheer and Professor Ahmed Ali were some prominent members of this association.
As the Left stood for progressive ideas like secularism, rational and scientific thinking and women’s rights etc; it was opposed by the majority of citizens of the new republic, which was, ostensibly created in the name of Islam. Jinnah -- a modern and secular leader -- used the religious card as a political ploy. He never had the intention of forming a theocratic Islamic state. His ideal was a modern Muslim nation state. But once the religious genie was out of the bottle, it was impossible to put it back.
This basis of Pakistan in religious ideology soon led to some painful paradoxes. The loss of East Pakistan made it amply clear that religion was not enough to hold together a diverse and complex nation state like Pakistan when justice and equity was not provided to all its federating units and the ethnic nationalities that lived there.
The 1970s were perhaps the high water mark for the Leftist parties. In the 1970 elections, the PPP, a Left of the Centre party with a socialist agenda, took maximum seats in West Pakistan, and after the separation of East Pakistan, it formed the federal government.
In NWFP and Balochistan, the Leftist Nationalist Party and the ‘National Awami Party’ (NAP) formed coalition governments. Z.A Bhutto, a shrewd politician, in order to make his socialist agenda more acceptable to the masses called it Islamic socialism. The parties of the Left have to be apportioned a great deal of blame for not following democratic policies and undermining each other. Bhutto soon dismissed the Leftist government in NWFP and the one in Balochistan resigned in protest.
Very soon under pressures of practical politics Bhutto’s socialist agenda and Leftist polices became diluted to the extent that PPP was no longer any different from the other parties. In its subsequent stints in government under Benazir and Zardari, the PPP dropped the claim of being a Leftist party.
General Zia’s more than ten years of reactive, self-serving Islamic policies almost sounded the death knell for political Left in Pakistan. The parties of the Left were considered to be secular and irreligious and thus not worthy of public support.
Our secular and Leftist parties did not make any serious attempt at educating people about the correct meaning of secularism as an ideology where religion is a private affair of every citizen, and has nothing to do with the affairs of the state. Majority of governments in Pakistan -- both civilian and military -- have been Right wing. The parties of the Left have thus been provided very little space to grow and develop. Leftist parties when they did come to power like PPP in the centre, and ANP in KPK, their governance left a lot to be desired. The general perception was one of corruption, maladministration and nepotism.
The minuscule Leftist parties that we have in Pakistan today seem to have limited themselves to drawing rooms and intellectual discourse only. On the other hand Islamist parties and militant groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ud-Dawah have very effective welfare and humanitarian wings. These humanitarian wings of Islamic Parties like Al-Khidmat Foundation and Falah-e-Insaniat avail every opportunity to help people, whether it is in natural disasters or looking after displaced people after military operations. These groups along with relief work also indulge in indoctrination and recruitment and thus achieve more traction in the population at large.
The disintegration of Soviet Union, and changes in Eastern Europe, adversely affected the political Left all over the world. These developments were considered to be the failure of the socialist project. The coming to power of Rightist, and in some case faith based parties, in the region, like Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey have also provided impetus to our own Right wing parties and thus further weakened the already feeble Left.
Latin America has been the only region, where parties of the Left have successfully formed and ran governments, after enduring long dictatorships of the Right in the 70s and 80s. Very recently, left Leaning parties have assumed power in Europe. Syriza, a Leftist party recently won elections in Greece, on an anti-austerity slogan. Neo-liberal economic polices face a lot of resistance among the not so affluent members of the EU. Podemos, another party of the Left is poised to win the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Spain.
For the political Left to remain relevant in Pakistan, it has to, for the time being, forget about capturing political power, either through revolution or the ballot box. The Leftist parties should instead support pro-people policies like secularism, social democracy, and modernity in thinking, economic justice, good governance, gender equality and rationality in human affairs. The Left can thus become relevant by acting as the moral compass of the society.